Dateline: Southeastern Ukraine

One of the biggest discussions around digital nomad or location-independent communities is whether it’s better to live in a large and well-known 1st tier city (such as the capital) or a smaller and less known 2nd or 3rd tier city.

The argument goes something along the lines that smaller cities are friendlier, less expensive and don’t have the hectic craziness of their bigger and badder counterparts.

After living all over the world in large and small cities, I believe, with a few exceptions, big cities offer much more value to any digital nomad or permanent traveler than smaller, 2nd or 3rd tier cities.

As a permanent traveler, I have the liberty to live in any country I want and in any city within that country that I desire. Generally, it’s easy to pick a country: you may love Brazil but hate Sweden, you may love Ukraine but not be too crazy about Kazakhstan or Egypt.

On the other hand, picking a city is a bit more complicated. For instance, let’s say you’ve always wanted to live in Colombia. Do you live in the big capital of Bogota, a smaller city like Medellin or settle down in the provincial Cali? What about Kiev or Odessa in Ukraine? Or what’s better: Bangkok or Chiang Mai in Thailand?

This is definitely something that I struggled with during my permanent traveler lifestyle. When I lived in Latin America, I mostly setup camp in large, well-known cities like Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, but have also experimented with living in smaller cities and where I didn’t even once hear an English word spoken.

That was the case in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

Even as I currently write this, I’ve been living in a smaller, 2nd-3rd  tier city in Southeastern Ukraine. There are no tourists here. That’s probably because there are no tourist attractions (that I know off and could recommend). It’s much more laid back than the capital. Needless to say, it’s been a completely different experience than living in a bigger city like Kiev or, obviously, New York.

First of all, I’ve always been a big city guy. I was born in a relatively big city (~1M people) and spent most of my life in relatively big and affluent cities (New York, San Francisco, etc), so it’s no wonder that when I set out to live abroad, I always aimed for huge cities not little towns in the middle of nowhere.

When I began traveling to Mexico more than a decade ago, the only city I really wanted to visit was Mexico City. Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, and for sure it didn’t disappoint. Many years later, I still describe this megapolis as a city where anything and everything is possible.

Here in Ukraine, I spent about three years living in Kiev, before experimenting with living in other cities. Kiev quickly became one my favorite cities in the entire world.

Big cities have amazing hustle and energy

First off, there’s nothing like living in a big city. Regardless if you’re based in New York City, Mexico City, São Paolo or Tokyo, there’s a certain energy and hustle that simply can’t (and doesn’t) exist in some nearby town of fewer than 1M people.

That’s especially important if you’re someone like a freelancer who works for other companies or a digital entrepreneur like myself who carves his own piece of the pie and works out of coffee shops or co-working spaces. I feel like I can build an empire and takeover the world whenever I’m in a place like NYC or São Paolo, but would never dream of anything big if I was based in some Sleepytown, West Virginia.

It’s easier to meet people in big cities

In my experience, it has also been much easier to meet people in large cities. Initially, this seemed like the opposite of common logic; I always imagined small towns to be super friendly because everyone knows everyone else and nobody looks doors at night and all that. And, while that may be true to some extent, I’ve discovered that it’s actually harder to meet people in smaller cities than their bigger counterparts.

One of the reasons for this is because big cities aren’t only composed of natives but also of people who moved there for more opportunities. For instance, in New York City it’s fairly easy to meet people from all over the world, never mind the entire United States.

In Rio de Janeiro, it’s common to meet people from all over Brazil; in Kiev, you’ll meet people from all over Ukraine.

And, since people move to larger cities because of more opportunities, they’re already more primed for meeting new people—whether they’re co-workers, business contacts or romantic connections. 

Big cities are also magnets for other foreigners, which are always open to meeting other expatriates. Even if, one day, I come to grips that I don’t really click with locals, I can always count on foreigners—regardless where they’re from—to meet up in some bar and have a beer.

The “small city” complex

Another thing I noticed after living in smaller but still relatively affluent cities is that people tend to have something that I call the “small city” complex. I recall living in Medellin, Colombia and meeting all kinds of people who weren’t shy about proclaiming how their city is the best in the country and even the world. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d ever met a single person from the capital, Bogota, who claimed that Bogota was the best even though the latter has many more opportunities than the former.

I also noticed this trend in Ukraine, a country where I’m now. Kiev is an awesome city, but people from the capital typically don’t go out of their way to remind you of that. Go to a smaller city like Odessa (where I was born) and you’ll have locals saying that their city is the best in the country (and even the world).

The problem with this complex is that it quickly crosses over into arrogance. When you’re in a city full of people who believe their city is the center of the universe, there’s little desire for them to expend energy and learning about other cities or cultures.

This also makes it much harder to integrate yourself into smaller cities as an outsider.

Big cities have more culture

Generally speaking, big cities are more “cultured” than smaller cities. New York City has more “culture” than Albany or Buffalo; Kiev, Ukraine has more culture than Chernigov (Чернигов); São Paolo, Brazil has more culture than Goiás; Moscow, Russia has more culture than Surgut (Сургут).

I never really considered myself as a “culture-seeking” guy, but I must admit that it’s a lot more pleasant living in a place like St. Petersburg, Russia, which is an epitome of a cultured-city with its world-class museums and restaurants, than a smaller town just outside Moscow (in fact, there’s absolutely nothing in the world that would convince me to live in the latter).

The cultural aspect also extends beyond monuments of dead people and museum exhibits; the people are also much more pleasant in more culture cities than in some backwater in the middle of nowhere.

This is especially true in Eastern Europe where the only livable cities in each country are the capitals or perhaps one other city: in Russia, that’s Moscow and St. Petersburg; in Ukraine, that’s Kiev and Odessa; in Lithuania, that’s just Vilnius; in Latvia, that’s just Riga. In this region, 2nd and 3rd tier cities are typically too poor, rundown or outright broken to provide a decent quality of life.

The exceptions

There are some notable exceptions. The main one is if the smaller city has somehow been “vetted” and delivers massive value above and beyond the big capital or another big city. 

Chiang Mai in Thailand is the perfect example. Yes, it’s a small provincial city, but it’s pleasant enough to provide a good quality of life and robust enough to have the infrastructure and the community to get some serious work done.

Another notable exception is the quintessential beach city. This would be something like Odessa in Ukraine; Split or Dubrovnik in Croatia; or Marbella in Spain. What all of these smaller cities have in common is the fact that they’re located near the beach with its relaxing vibe. Beyond the beach, the city may not offer much and can’t compete with the bigger capital in non-summer months.

Bigger is better

Ultimately, a big city should be your top pick whenever you’re planning a new chapter in a new country. There’s enough buzz and hustle to keep you busy as you’re looking to explore and get to know your new surrounding.

Smaller cities are great for a quick getaway for a weekend or few days. I can certainly see myself living in Bogota, Colombia and making a quick trip to some neighboring town or village, but living in the latter for an extended amount of time would be another story.

From Bangkok to Bogota, from Kiev to Singapore, big cities are the default choice for quality long-term living and everything else you may desire. They just make more sense.

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